Blank spots on the map: three suggestions for Michael Shapiro

First, the title of this post obviously is a steal from Trevor Paglen’s book, subtitled The Dark Geography of the Pentagon’s Secret World. I’ve been meaning to write up one or two thoughts after seeing his exhibition Geographies of Seeing at Brighton Photo Biennial, but that’s on hold until next week.

Rather this is a quick reaction to Michael J. Shapiro’s new book, Studies in Transdisciplinary Method. As Shapiro writes, it’s a “methods book” (p.32) that explores a wide range of artistic texts and the aesthetic figures that inhabit them, as a way of opening up alternative political imaginations. Surveying a huge range of authors, including Kant, Benjamin, Arendt, Baudrillard, Deleuze, Guattari and Mbembe, Shapiro draws especially on the work of Jacques Rancière and his arguments concerning the ability of critical art to enact moments of dissensus and reframe the ‘distribution of the sensible’.

First, a couple of general points. On my reading, Shapiro follows Rancière in focusing primarily on individual films, novels or works of art and the way that they are held to intervene in the distribution or partitioning of the sensible, disrupting the police order and proposing alternative figures of community (to use Rancière’s vocabulary) . There’s little reflection on the production, circulation or reception of particular texts; their aesthetic-political properties are understood to reside in the texts or works themselves. Though Raymond Williams’ concept is referenced, there is in fact little enquiry into the broader ‘structures of feeling’ within, against or with which these interventions may work. And while Shapiro seeks to advance a political understanding of subjectivities and to problematise their conditions of possibility, his own positioning isn’t reflected upon explicitly in the book, although we are left with a sense of how he wishes to address epistemological and disciplinary divides within US political science.

But all that’s by way of a prelude to my main point, which concerns the final chapter in the book, ‘The presence of war: “Here and Elsewhere”. This I found particularly interesting because it addresses many of the concerns of my current project: how art practices respond to and engage with the complex spatialities of what Derek Gregory calls ‘late modern war’, and the Iraq war in particular. Indeed, the chapter does deal with responses to Iraq. What really jumped out at me was the following passage (on p.142):

Although there is doubtless much to learn about the lives of those who live in the war zones, my focus here is on the way contemporary artistic treatments – which challenge the limits of perception – can bring the lives of those on the U.S. domestic front into focus and thereby affect the ways in which wars will achieve future, interpretive presences.

Here Shapiro effects his own distribution of the sensible, in a way that is strangely out of keeping with the rest of the book, which engages with a variety of films, novels and art works by a range of people with a range of relationships to the geographies of power that he seeks to disrupt. The chapter on justice discusses a Romanian film and an Italian novel; while the chapter on border crossing focuses on Cormac McCarthy, it at least mentions a Mexican-American novelist. In sum, the rest of the book is less Anglo-US centric than the ‘war’ chapter. Here the examples discussed, via Agamben, Arendt, Virilio, Baudrillard, Lindqvist and Bergson as well as Rancière, are Martha Rosler’s Bringing the War Home photomontages (one of which appears on the cover, above), Paul Haggis’ 2007 movie In the Valley of Elah and Annie Proulx’s story “Tits Up in a Ditch”.  These works are interesting in their own right in the ways that Shapiro discusses but they are all centered on the US and, I think, presume a US frame of reference and viewer/reader (on Proulx’s story I’m going on Shapiro’s discussion, I haven’t read it). Although they provide ways for Shapiro to highlight the history of dispossession underlying US territorial statehood, the lives of ‘those who live in the war zones’ and how they have been touched by the projection of sovereign power overseas are indeed stubbornly missing from view. There’s also little sense that the relationship between the ‘home front’ and the ‘war zone’ may be experienced as one of topological complexity for, say, people born in ‘war zones’ but living in the diaspora.

I think this absence from view matters, in ways that it is largely redundant to rehearse here. It would have been easy to address it, which is why I’m all the more puzzled that this opportunity has been overlooked. So rather than develop the critique further, I have three suggestions, taken from art, cinema and theatre that try to engage with the lives of those in – and from – the ‘war zone’.

The first is Wafaa Bilal’s ‘live art installation’ Domestic Tension, about which he has co-authored a book (link here) and about which I have also written (link here, $$$, but you can email me if you want to read it). In this, Bilal, who left Iraq after the war of 1990-1991, lived more or less continuously for one month in front of a web cam connected to a paintball gun. Participants were invited to log onto a dedicated website, observe and if they so chose, ‘shoot an Iraqi’. Bilal recorded a video diary every day, and you can still find them on YouTube. Addressing many facets of contemporary geopolitics, including its complex topologies, the work was conceived by Bilal in part as a way of feeling closer to his family still in Iraq, living with the consequences of the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation and the death of his brother in a US helicopter gunship strike. Domestic Tension is also discussed by Roger Stahl in his documentary film Returning Fire: Interventions in Video Game Culture (you can watch it here).

Without a well-developed cinematic tradition, and in the chaos of occupation, it is amazing that any movies at all have emerged from Iraq since 2003. But this is what Mohamed al-Daraji managed to achieve with the ragged but still extraordinary Ahlaam (Dream) (2006), shot in Baghdad the immediate aftermath of the invasion and the later Son of Babylon (2009). But I think Shapiro’s purposes might be better served with a consideration of Nick Broomfield’s 2007 film Battle for Haditha, which deals with the notorious massacre that followed an IED attack on a US marine convoy there in 2005. In their background research, Broomfield and his team interviewed Iraqis and US Marines who had been in Haditha on the day of the massacre, and the movie aims for a verité style. Shot in Jordan with mostly Iraqi actors, the film tries to show the events from the perspectives of the soldiers, residents of the town and local men who want to resist the US occupation but who get caught up with newly-appeared Al Qaeda fighters who are starting to assert themselves in the area. It’s tense, unsparing and horrific.

I saw Broomfield introduce the film and respond to questions at the premiere of the movie in London in 2007. Responding to a question from an Iraqi man about his appropriation of the conflict, Broomfield chose not to defend or justify himself, instead simply accepting the criticism, offering a humble apology. Though not without its flaws, I think Battle for Haditha lacks the dishonesty and narcissism that plagues Western ‘war on terror’ culture from 24 in 2001 to Homeland today, and is the best film so far about the Iraq war.

Third is Hassan Abdulrazzak’s play Baghdad Wedding, first performed in 2007. Not being much of a theatregoer, I haven’t seen this but I have read the book of the script and listened to a version produced for radio. It performs the story of how a group of Iraqi friends studying in London are affected by a US helicopter gunship strike on a wedding party as it proceeds through the streets of Baghdad, with guns firing into the air (a kind of forerunner of the ‘signature strikes’ undertaken by drones based on ‘pattern of life’). The play jumps forwards and backwards in time and between London and Baghdad and follows different characters as their paths diverge and cross. I won’t say much more, except that the play expertly deploys obscenity as a tool to interrogate and express outrage at the conduct of the war. Like Domestic Tension and Battle For Haditha, Baghdad Wedding not only engages with the lives of those in the war zone, but shows that the ‘heres’ and ‘theres’ of war are much more entangled than we are often encouraged to think.

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